Wednesday, 7 October 2015

a secret art exhibition beside the sea

One of the perks of my job is getting out and about in the local area and coming across places off the beaten track that I'd never otherwise discover. While out on the north coast recently, the binmen told me about an old shop at Skerray pier which currently had an art exhibition it it. This is just the kind of quirky thing that I love, so after a quick look around while they emptied the litter bin, I planned to come back in my own time and really get a feel for the place.

As we're in autumn, I was worried about the weather turning so when this Sunday past proved bright and sunny, I took the opportunity to go back there and have a proper look.
Skerray is a tiny remote village about 40 miles along the coast from Thurso. It's name means 'between the rocks and sea' in Gaelic, so 'erosion' was the perfect title for the exhibition! The community has a number of artists living there so a random art gallery isn't too much of a surprise.

The old shop is small and unassuming.

But inside it contained some lovely paintings and displays. The mercats were possibly my favourite (because they're cats!). It was a shame that 2 had been taken, it would have been nice to see them all...

It's very close to the shore!

I do need to practice with my new camera a bit more as some photos are a bit too bright, simply because I have no idea what I'm doing, but it was good fun trying it out again.

After a spot of googling, I found this blog - in partcular this post gives some background, and there are loads more photos, including one of all 3 mercats! I did wonder why there had been no local publicity about it, and now I realise its because its a secret! I know I've just blogged about it, but my blog is hardly a daily tabloid so I don't think its going to generate a huge influx of attention. But if you ever happen to be in the north west Highlands (which I highly recommend - it's stunning) do check 'erosion' out...if the wind and rain doesn't get to it first!

Friday, 2 October 2015

the story behind the story: the summer of the whale

Last summer, I was over in the Lochinver area with a colleague. It was a beautiful clear, sunny day and the west coast was stunning as usual. On the drive home, a heather fire had gone out of control and the hillside was ablaze. Flames danced along the side of the road and I could feel the heat through the van door as we drove tentatively beside it. Twice we had to stop to let fire engines past. It was one of those weird days I'll never forget.

I can't remember the main purpose of our day out but one of our tasks had been to look for a dead whale reported as washed up on a small beach. The remote beach in question was just metres from the sand-covered single-track road, and the two crofthouses beside it had gardens full of drying nets, lobster pots and driftwood. We stumbled over the shingly foreshore then set of along the sand, no sign of any dead whale although thanks to the heat we could definitely smell it.

We had almost stood on the carcass before we realised. Some black lumps that had looked like rocks from a distance, but this was the decomposing, stinking remains of the whale's flesh. It was huge! To see such a great, majestic creature reduced to rotting blubber on a beach was heartbreaking. Its not the first time I've encountered a dead whale - they've been washed up on the beach at home aswell; although this was the closest I'd ever been to one. And it wasn't nice.

I knew straight away that I wanted to write a story about a dead whale and the title The Summer of the Whale came into my head. It needed to be a metaphor for something though, so that I could build some sort of plot line around it. I got to thinking about how different a dead whale looks like to the images we see of live whales, which gave me the idea of the whale as a metaphor for life; often things aren't as great or as wonderful as we expect them to be.

Once I had this hook, the story emerged pretty quickly; I wrote it from the point of view of a pre-teen boy as I figured this disappointment would be more profound in that age group than in an adult. I was really pleased with the final piece and submitted it to a competition which unfortunately it never won. I'm not one to be defeated though, so I submitted it again, this time to the Ifanca Helene James short story competition. And it won third prize! If you'd like to read it, here it is in all its glory.

Friday, 25 September 2015

nine reasons why autumn is awesome

Apparently autumn officially started on September 22nd. I'm a bit more simplistic, in that I divide the seasons up by months, so in my mind it started on September 1st. Either way we're pretty much in throes of it now.

I'm ignoring all the moans about the end of summer, the nights drawing in and the cold weather (was it ever not cold this year?!). Instead I'm embracing all things autumn. Its a bit of a blogging cliche to write posts about seasons, but I love reading what other people love about the season changes so I'm going to jump on that bandwagon and do my own post.

My absolute favourite thing about autumn is the season itself - its my favourite of the four (spring comes a close second). There's something so magical and hopeful about it, depsite the inevitable dampness and decay. I for one am truly grateful for this season, and here's why...

The smells
Every season has its scents but I love the crisp, fresh smells of autumn. Chimney smoke, bonfires, spices, apples, root veg soup, warming stews, apple crumbles, earth, rain, decay...and that distinctive but unexplainable smell of a chill in the air.

The sounds
Mostly crackling. Dry leaves, sparklers, logs on the fire. Also the honking of geese as they fly overhead towards warmer climates (sensible creatures) and the crunch of biting into a fresk UK-grown apple.

The colours
Brown, yellow, gold, orange, russet, red. With a bit of green and black thrown in. Such a gorgeous pallete.

The weather
Seriously. OK, not when its windy and wet but when its one of those cool days when the sky is blue, the leaves are crunchy, the birds are singing and those glorious smells, sounds and colours above are abundant. That's what I'm talking about.

Dark evenings
I'll be honest and say this was my least favourite thing about autumn but I embrace them now. Lets face it, if the weathers going to be shit its best we don't see it. It's a great excuse to get the fire going and drink some hot chocolate or mulled cider while reading a book. Dark nights and frost also mean clear, visible skies. One of my favourite things to do is take a walk along the seafront in late evening; there's no one around and I can see entire constellations, plus the aurora borealis if I'm really lucky. This beats even the loveliest summer evening walk.

Wrapping up warm
I probably spend most of the year wrapped up warm, but still, autumn is the time of year when the winter boots and coat are hauled out, plus the hats, scarves and gloves are washed and ready for action. Its also a good excuse to invest in some new jumpers and cardigans. I love that feeling of being wrapped up warm on a chilly morning.

That back to school feeling
I know I'm not the only person who indulges in stationery at this time of year. Remember that feeling of opening your new pencil case or writing your name on your crisp new jotter? There's something about autumn that makes me want to start afresh - to renew my current goals in life and decide what I want to do next. Possibility and excitement are in the air. Halloween, Guy Fawkes night and Christmas are all on the horizon.

Seasonal foods
Most people don't eat seasonally nowadays, but there's no doubt that seasonal foods taste better when they're actually in season. Apples, pears, blackberries, root veg and game meat are my autumn go-to foods, with which I make soups, stews, crumbles and pies.

It makes death look beautiful
Not much terrifies us mere mortals more than the thought of death. But essentially autum is death, and it knows how to rock it. There is no doubt that a tree with golden leaves is far more stunning than one with green leaves. Autumn is a reminder that everything changes and death is inevitable. Autumn doesn't fight it. Autumn doesn't fear it. It lets nature take its course as the cycle continues. There's nothing quite like death to make us feel more alive.

What do you love about autumn? If its not your favourite season, what is, and why?

Thursday, 24 September 2015

three on thursday - my three favourite candles

This is part of an occasional series where I blog about three of my favourite whatevers

I absolutely love candles but I have candle standards, so they need to (a) be made of natural products,(b) have a nice scent that actually lingers but isn't fake or overpowering, and (c) not be overly expensive - I don't mind paying a bit extra for quality, individual products but I have my limits.

After some trial and error here are three of my favourites.

Almost local, as they're based in Sutherland. Lavender, Patchouli & Frankinsence is by far my favourite so far although they have some other scents I think I'd love (Mountain Mist sounds lovely). Burn time is stated as 30 hours but I'm sure my candles have surpassed that. What I love most about these candles though, is that they fragrance the room without being burned. My bedroom permamently has this lovely, relaxing smell simply because the candle is in there. Not only that, its a natural, subtle smell, not overpowering and synthetic as would be the case with cheaper candles.

I've tried Maple Aromatics candles and simmering granules, and both get a thumbs up. Again, the candles are natural, plus the packaging is 100% recyclable, and y'all know I'm obsessive about recycling.

I love their Christmas range; Candy Cane and Mince Pie are both great for giving your house a lovely festive scent, but Clove and Orange is my favourite.

This is the 'biggest' of the three companies, and their range is vast. There are so many scents I would love to try but my favourites so far are toasted cinnamon (saved for Christmas) and Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh, which you'd think would be suited to Christmas but actually I find it has a scent suitable for all year. In particular I love using it when I give reiki treatments as its calming, relaxing and fresh.

Again, I can leave the candle sitting out unlit and the scent still manages to fill the room without overwhelming. It lasts a long time although I go through them quickly as I have it lit most days as its in the living room. With that said, I get a couple of months out of the large candles so its pretty good.

Eco-friendly and original candles are much more readily available these days; Etsy has a huge selection. In particular I love any that are made in vintage crockery or recycled bottles, so I'll need to sample them soon!

Do you burn candles? Any favourites?

Thursday, 17 September 2015

a writer's guide to surviving mercury in retrograde

Even those who don't believe in astrology or planetary influence, often agree that there are two movements which genuinely seem to affect people. One is the full moon, the other is Mercury in retrograde. Mercury goes retrograde three or four times a year, and at around 1pm GMT today, it will do just that, and will remain so until October 9th. Let the madness begin!

What the hell does Mercury in retrograde mean?
It means Mercury looks like its spinning backwards in the sky. It isn't; planets don't go backwards. But as its moving round, it appears from earth to be moving backwards - you know when you're driving and you pass another car, or a train, that's going slower than you, so it appears to be going backwards? This is the same optical illusion.

Whats the problem though?
Well, Mercury is a pain in the arse when it goes retrograde. Mercury rules communications, technology, travel and vehicles so they all tend to go a bit haywire. Travel delays are inevitable, as are system crashes, vehicle breakdowns and arguments. Good times!

Why does this happen?
Who knows? But there is a belief that Mercury has an iron core, so its basically a big magnet passing between the sun and earth. This has never been proven but it kind of makes sense.

Ah, shit! So should I hibernate for the next few weeks then?
Nah, its fine. It's not all bad by any means. Mercury Retrograde is a time for relaxing and reflection, plus trying to avoid travelling and technology as much as we can. Not always easy in the modern world. The basic rules are - don't sign, don't buy, don't start anything new, watch out for exes, repeat yourself, keep your emotions in check. And as writers, we can make the most of Mercury's weird effects over the next couple of weeks, so here are some ideas

  • Work on any half-finished stories that are kicking around
  • Avoid starting new projects - collate ideas but let them sit until Mercury goes direct again
  • Thoroughly review any contracts before signing (if possible, don't sign them until Mercury goes direct)
  • Back up all documents and files (this should really be done beforehand)
  • Clear out and reorganize your filing - digital and physical
  • Streamline and clear your writing space
  • Always carry a notepad if travelling by public transport - you should do this anyway, but its a great way to make the most of any delays
  • Triple-check any short stories, articles, emails etc before you send them - if errors are going to slip through, now is the time for them to happen
  • Avoid buying a new laptop, or any other technology
  • Don't take negative comments or reviews personally (this is true all the time, but people can be extra harsh and tactless during this time)
  • Use a pad and pen instead of a laptop/computer
  • Reminisce - read work you wrote a long time ago, read old journals, connect with old friends, and consider how you can learn from the past and use it in the present
  • If you were born during a Mercury Retrograde, now is a great time to write as you become more productive and your mind is sharper
  • Embrace the chaos, and look on every mishap as a great story idea!

Overall, look on Mercury in Retrograde as a positive thing - it's a great chance to pause and review what needs to be finished. What mental clutter can you tidy up? What projects or loose ends can you finish? Are there any old projects or patterns that you can release? Obviously don't put your life on hold because some daft planet has decided to faff about, but just slow down a bit. Sit back and observe your life; don't judge, just let things happen. Decide how you want to move forward. Then, when Mercury goes direct again, you'll be ready to power ahead too!

Have you ever noticed the effects of Mercury in retrograde? Do you believe stuff like this?

Monday, 14 September 2015

the story behind the story: the shadow of old jock

I was excited to find out that my story The Shadow of Old Jock was in this months Take A Break Fiction Feast. I knew they had purchased the story but I had no idea when it would appear. I buy the magazine every month, and only realized when I saw a nod to my story on the front page. Exciting!!!!

This is the first story I've sold to TAB so its all a bit surreal. So not only am I super excited, I'm also very proud. I love reading the creative process behind other writers' stories so thought I'd do a series with my own stories, which, as well as offering blatant self-promotion (and its my blog so that's OK) will hopefully inspire other writers too.

This story was written for a ghost-story themed competition. My Dad had told me about a couple he once met who were convinced there was a ghost in their house. Every evening at the same time, they claimed a shadow passed along the wall and made the TV go fuzzy. They were sure there was a path there before the houses were built, so thought that the ghost was walking along the path! 

This gave me loads to think about. Who was the ghost and why did it follow the same path at the same time every evening? I wanted to write about this but also tie it in with the current inhabitant of the house. How could I link the two together?

The resulting story didn't win the competition - I don't think it even made the shortlist. But on a whim I decided to send it to TAB. I must admit, I was dubious. Not because its a bad story - I would never insult an editor or myself by sending them a story I didn't deem good enough for their publication - but because I wasn't sure if was their thing. It's a ghost story for a start, plus it has a male protagonist. to be fair, ghost stories and male protagonists appear in TAB a lot, but still I wasn't sure if it would quite be suitable for them.

But it was! And they've published it! They've changed the title, arguably to a much better title than I had. This is quite common and some writers are precious about it, but naming stories is my least favourite part of the process so its fine by me. What matters, is that my story is in print, and I hope the readers enjoy it!

Octobers Take A Break Fiction Feast is available now for £1.80, and features loads of other awesome stories!

*NOT a sponsored or affiliate post*

Thursday, 3 September 2015

faffing and zooming with my new camera

I have a new camera!!!

After months of deliberation, and of taking home various CDC models then deciding that they're too scary for me, I've settled on a Panasonic DMC-FZ72 bridge camera.

I love photography, but I'm very much self-taught. I've learned a lot from Sarah and also from doing my 365 in 2013. I'm clueless about how cameras work though, and what I can do with them. But I've mastered my Lumix DMC-SZ1, so wanted something newer and fancier to play around with. Plus my old camera has two annoying squiggles on the lens/sensor and I'm sick to death of editing them out!

I went for this model because its basically a bridge version of what I have, so the controls are similar but with a few added extras. I'm still at the messing-about-with-it phase and I dedicated last weekend to taking photos of all sorts of crap, just to get a feel for it.

It's bigger and bulkier, obviously, which will take a bit of getting used to but otherwise its lovely to shoot with and has loads of awesome features. Most seasoned photographers would probably be underwhelmed but for me its a world of discovery. The best thing in my opinion so far though, is the zoom. I love a good zoom, me. And this one has a 60x zoom which was very appealing.

Here's a shot of Scrabster Lighthouse. I must be standing really nearby, right?

WRONG!!! Look how far away I am. Admittedly it looks further away in the photo than it actually is, but woah!

And here's the horizon. That hazy bit in the middle is Orkney which is far away.

But here is it close up! You can make out the Old Man of Hoy perfectly!

Here's Scrabster Harbour all retro-looking, because there's a thing on the camera that does that (not the technical term for it, you'll be surprised to know).

Here's some birds on a roof.

Here's a photo of a bonzai plant - it was just a black blob until I did some faffing with the camera and now you can see the leaves! Exciting!

The rats had to get in on the action.

And as a final bonus shot, here's the full moon in Pisces on Saturday night. I can take night shots now! Expect some Aurora Borealis photos soon, if I can bring myself to stay awake long enough to see them.

What type of camera do you use? Do you like it? Do you know much about photography or are you an over-excitable amateur aswell?